Project Pitlane – F1’s response to the call to arms by the British government for technology to alleviate the coronavirus pandemic – has had its first significant success. A breathing aid device jointly developed by Mercedes High Performance Power Trains and clinicians at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (UCLH) has been approved for trials. It is currently being tried in three London hospitals and, if passed for widespread use, is set to go into production next week at the rate of 1,000 units per day. This is just the first of what are set to be many responses to the crisis by F1 Project Pitlane, an initiative that is being co-ordinated by the Renault F1 team, with six others teams – Mercedes, Red Bull, McLaren, Williams, Racing Point, Haas – taking on projects within it.
The UCLH press release gives some details of the device Mercedes has helped reverse engineer in less than 100 hours. “The breathing aid, known as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), has been used extensively in hospitals in Italy and China to help Covid-19 patients with serious lung infections to breathe more easily, when oxygen alone is insufficient.
In terms of the sport’s perceived contribution to society, this is surely going to dwarf anything achieved by hybrid power units
“Since Wednesday 18th March, engineers at UCL and HPP and clinicians at UCLH have been working round the clock at UCL’s engineering hub MechSpace to reverse engineer a device that can be produced rapidly by the thousands. This has now been recommended for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).”
The CPAP devices are complementary to the full intensive care unit ventilators – of which there are insufficient to cope with expected demand – and could perform an absolutely crucial role in saving lives by reducing demand on the full ICU equipment. Experience in Italy suggests that 50 per cent of patients given a CPAP treatment have avoided the need for invasive mechanical ventilation. They are also portable. “These devices will help save lives by ensuring the ventilators, a limited resource, are used only for the most severely ill,” says UCLH critical care consultant Prof Mervyn Singer. “They will make a real difference to hospitals across the UK by reducing demand on intensive care staff and beds.”
Patient using a CPAP device
Formula One is staffed by such brilliant minds and equipped with such stunning levels of engineering resource that it’s the obvious place to answer this sort of quick response engineering challenge. It also has a can-do attitude a million miles in advance of the everyday world – a perfect combination for a response to this crisis. Prof Tim Baker of UCL Mechanical Engineering has said, “We are thankful that we were able to reduce a process that could take years down to a matter of days. From being given the brief, we worked all hours of the day, disassembling and analysing an off-patent device. Using computer simulations, we improved the device further to create a state-of-the-art version suited to mass production.”